In more than a few NBA locales – we all know who they are – a 46-win season would be a cause for jubilation. In Phoenix, all that 46 wins brought last season was a lot of chaos, confusion, dissension, reflection, a coaching change and the first visit to the lottery in half a decade.
“An aberration,’’ in the words of Phoenix Suns general manager Steve Kerr.
Only two teams – the San Antonio Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks – have had better records over the last five years than the Suns. But even in a 46-win season (which would have placed the Suns fifth in the East) there were signs, subtle and overt, that the run might be coming to an end.
Shaquille O’Neal(notes), at first a welcome addition but gradually proven to be the proverbial 375-pound elephant in the room, was traded for two players whose contracts were bought out. There was talk of fiscal restraint. The halcyon days under Mike D’Antoni seemed like a distant era. Few talked of the Suns as a threat out West anymore.
None of this was lost on two thirty-something Suns, Hill and two-time Most Valuable Player Steve Nash(notes), who came to big decisions last summer. In separate statements that spoke volumes about what is going in Phoenix – and what might be going on down the road in Phoenix – they each committed to their team.
“You can look at it two ways,’’ Nash said. “[Last season] could have been a reason to jump ship – or a reason to stay and fight. Ultimately, I decided I wanted to stick around and fight, to keep building on what we worked on, and try to get a nice team back on the floor for our city and make it enjoyable again.”
Nash, who had a year left on his contract, agreed to a two-year extension last summer, thus taking his name out of the promising 2010 free agent market. He’ll be 36 in February and 38 when the contract expires.
Kerr thinks Nash is still one of the top five point guards in the league and will be good for a year or two beyond even 2012, comparing Nash to John Stockton in terms of durability and commitment to health, diet and exercise. (Stockton played 82 games in his final NBA season, 2002-03, during which he turned 41. A couple years later, Danny Ainge called Stockton to see if he was interested in joining the Boston Celtics. Nash’s agent, meanwhile, said his client has talked about playing overseas when his NBA days are over).
Hill, entering free agency and turning 37 in training camp, was nonetheless a very attractive free agent to a number of teams. The New York Knicks made an offer. (Talk about your basic downgrade.) The Denver Nuggets and the Miami Heat were interested. The Celtics, with Hill’s Orlando neighbor, Doc Rivers, leading the charge, wanted him as well, and could legitimately offer Hill a shot at a championship ring.
“I consider Doc to be a friend,’’ Hill said. “Certainly it was tempting. I talked to Ray [Allen]. I talked to Kevin [Garnett]. They’ve got a great bunch of guys who I’ve known for a long, long time. There was nothing bad about the situation there, but I like the situation where I’m at. I can’t put it any more simpler than that.
“This is my team. These are my teammates,’’ said Hill, who signed a two-year deal. “We went through a lot last year, a coaching change, season-ending injuries, not meeting expectations and just a lot of soul searching as a unit that I think brought us closer together and bonded us. I feel we were better than what we showed last season so that played a big part in my decision, sort of unfinished business. I enjoy my teammates, and being able to enjoy coming to work every day, especially for someone who has been hurt so much, is important to me.”
What does it say about the situation in the Valley of the Sun that the two eminence grises did what they did? (OK, other than they had to get rid of Shaq for it to happen.) Phoenix has always been a preferred NBA destination because of its climate, but, as Hill noted, “you can really live anywhere. And there’s nothing wrong with New York, Boston, Miami or Denver. Those are pretty good cities, too.”
What it says, Kerr believes, is that once the necessary changes were made, there was a general feeling that last season was not the beginning of the end.
“I think it says a lot about the organization, about [coach] Alvin Gentry, about the great situation we have always had in Phoenix,’’ Kerr said. “It says last year was an aberration. It says last year wasn’t such a disaster that everyone wanted to bail out. It was more, ‘hey that was a lousy season, let’s turn it around next year.’ And both of the guys [Hill and Nash] jumped on board.”
So far, the results have been nothing short of spectacular. Confronted with a brutal opening stretch (15 of their first 22 are on the road), the Suns rallied past the Philadelphia 76ers to improve to 7-1, matching the best seven-game start in franchise history. On their 4-1 Eastern swing, the Suns knocked Miami and the Celtics from the ranks of the undefeated.
There has been the surprising contribution from newcomer Channing Frye(notes), who is tied for the team lead with 22 3-pointers. Amar’e Stoudemire(notes), rumored to be on the move when he’s not on the mend, is putting up nifty numbers. (His potential free agency is the next big move for the Suns.) Gentry has opened things up offensively and the Suns have scored at least 100 points in all seven games, including a stunning 110 against the defensively gifted Celtics, who have not allowed a team to score as many as 91 points in any other game.
Hill is healthy; he went wire-to-wire last season for just the second time in his career and first in an 82-game season. He hasn’t missed a game this season and already has posted four double-doubles, one less than he had all last season. He’s averaging 13.6 points and 8.7 rebounds a game.
Nash, meanwhile, has been, “phenomenal,” in the words of Kerr. He had 20 assists against the Sixers and is averaging 19.4 points and 11.9 assists a game. He appears to be enjoying himself on the floor again.
“First and foremost, I really like my teammates and my coaches,’’ Nash said. “And I wanted to continue to play together and work on what we started, which, for me, was five years ago. By the end of the year, if we have a great attitude and spirit, who knows how good we can be?”
It’s nowhere near the end of the year, but right now, the Suns have the attitude and spirit, not to mention the talent, to be pretty good. If they keep it up, that 46-win eyesore of a year ago will indeed be long forgotten.